Why Alzheimer's is actually a young person's disease

Nov 6, 2015 at 4:04 p.m. ET
Image: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Getty Images

Think you're safe from Alzheimer's disease because you're in your 20s or 30s? Think again.

Alzheimer's disease is a devastating illness — perhaps one of the most devastating, as it slowly robs a person of every thing that makes them human before killing them. But most of us have taken comfort in the fact that it generally doesn't happen until old age. Bad news: Doctors have issued a new warning, saying that the seeds for Alzheimer's are sown in the brains of young adults. Good news: There is something you can do about it right now.

"Alzheimer's is now a younger person's disease," said Sanjay Gupta, M.D., in a special for CNN on the subject. He explained that thanks to advances in brain scanning technology, we now see evidence of Alzheimer's disease in people 20 to 30 years before they start showing symptoms, with the illness first starting in young adults.

More: Remembering basketball legend Pat Summitt with her wisest quotes

Plaques, the first sign of the disease, can begin to form as early as our 20s and 30s. When brain cells sense these plaques and realize that other brain cells are dying, they assume there is an infection and attempt to fight it off, according to Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Harvard, who consulted with Gupta. But there is no infection, and in the attempt to fight it, the brain becomes flooded with inflammatory free radicals that begin a self-destructive cycle inside the brain.

"This is the only leading cause of death that's not currently preventable," Gupta said, pointing out that by 2040, Alzheimer's will account for a full 25 percent of Medicare's budget — more than heart disease and diabetes combined.

More: The sexiest part of you is your brain, and that's why Alzheimer's needs a cure

But just because there is no cure (yet!), that doesn't mean we all should sit back and patiently wait to lose our minds. Instead, there is a multitude of new research showing how living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent the early formations of the plaques and even reduce the likelihood of developing the disease or at least delay its onset. And the best part is that these are all things that are simple to do, inexpensive, and you can start them right now, today.

Here are the 6 things Gupta and Tanzi recommend, in order of importance:

1. Exercise. Even moderate amounts of walking, weight lifting or other movement can help reduce your risk, according to a 2014 study.

2. Seven to eight hours of sleep a night. They say sleep helps the brain clear debris, and a recent Berkeley study supports this "garbage cleaning" theory. Strangely, one study from earlier this year also found that sleeping on your side is more beneficial for preventing Alzheimer's than sleeping in other positions.

More: 15 Amazing things a good night's sleep does for your body

3. A Mediterranean-style diet. According to research, eating a diet rich in colorful produce, whole grains, fish and healthy fats will not only help your mind, but it has also been shown to lower your risk of certain types of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Winner, winner, chicken (and salad and rice) dinner!

More: Mediterranean diet tips and recipes

4. Adding good-quality omega-3 oils. Tanzi recommends krill oil supplements, but you can always get it through your food, eating salmon and other fatty fish.

5. Intellectual stimulation. A brain game a day keeps the Alzheimer's away? It's not conclusive science by any means, but some studies have shown that challenging your mental skills can help keep you sharp as you age. Plus, who doesn't love a good crossword or sudoku?

6. Social engagement. We are a social species, and our brains thrive on interaction with others. The National Institute on Aging says that telling jokes or venting to a friend is correlated with fewer symptoms of Alzheimer's, although they say the causal relationship isn't clear yet.